Kirk & Baker Play "Marvel Pinball: Fantastic Four"

Traditionally, super heroes and pinball go great together, as the old school '70s Superman and Spider-Man pinball table owners would happily attest. But Zen Studios is working its magic on more current designs, thanks to the release of Marvel Pinball, available separately on PlayStation 3 or as part of the Pinball FX 2 package on Xbox 360. The initial four tables introduced a number of tables to the fold, including dedicated designs for Iron Man and Blade and this week, the team added a new Fantastic Four themes game.

But what goes into a pinball table design? A lot, actually. So CBR News sat down with Chris Baker, the Manager for Licensed Games at Marvel Studios and Mel Kirk, with Zen Studios, to discuss the development process and what could possibly be next.

CBR News: First off, what prompted Zen Studios to choose a table based on the Fantastic Four, especially with heroes such as Thor and Captain America getting all the attention with new films?

Mel Kirk: First of all, you must understand that we spent hours and hours poring over the list of characters in the Marvel library, talking about which to use and how to create an experience that would be both authentic to each character, exciting to both hardcore and casual pinball players and most of all, fun! The Fantastic Four was really an easy choice because of the rich history of the group and the diversity of superhero powers that the FF brings to the table. We knew these abilities could translate really well on the pinball table and create unique interactions with the ball in ways that would be really fun.

If you have spent any time with the table, you will see that these abilities have been built into the table, which specific missions around each that really allow for each character to show their strengths. My favorite is probably the Human Torch flying around the table lighting things on fire -- really cool effects and it might that I have dreamed of having that ability!

What was the process like for Marvel and Zen Studios when developing the table design?

Chris Baker: For any of these great tables, we at Marvel deliver Zen a slew of comics reference and pretty much just have them go to town. These guys know the material as well as any hardcore fan does, and just like a Jack Kirby or a John Byrne, they're artists in their own right with their own creative vision. Granted, that vision is shaped by 40 years of comic art -- whether that be Kirby, Byrne or anyone else who's brought the team to life in the comics -- plus the stories of Stan Lee and subsequent writers as well. But it is their own creative vision, to be sure.

One of my favorite parts of the process is when the game design document hits our approvals system. Of course, since these guys know our material so well, there usually isn't much for us to address, and this was especially true with Fantastic Four. I had to make sure all the premier classic characters were included in some way, and they pretty much nailed them from the outset -- all four team members, Doom, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Super-Skrull and even the Mole Man.

For this table, I got a little bit of extra help from Josh Fine from Marvel Animation, who produced the last FF animated series. His suggestion of adding H.E.R.B.I.E. into the mix was absolutely brilliant. There was already a "defend the Baxter Building from Skrulls" minigame, and having the FF's trusty robot pal anxiously act all "heroics are not in my programming!" in the background as you play only makes it better.

Of course, actually getting to play the game is the next big exciting milestone, and I knew from the start that this one would be a winner -- I think it might even be my favorite overall, and I'm definitely a Spidey/Wolvie guy. I'm pretty sure the whole office heard me when I got all excited yelling, "Look at Reed! He's doing science!" 'Cause seriously -- how many times have we actually seen Reed do what he does best in games? I also absolutely love the teamwork involved in the kickback where Susan puts up a force field, then Reed stretches to grab the ball and gently places it back in play.

Overall, these guys at Zen are so good, they make my job easy. The toughest thing I had to do was add a few new lines and such for the characters to say, which we often rip directly from the comics for that added sense of authenticity. And of course, for any of these tables -- whether it be Wolvie's "Best there is" or the Human Torch's "Flame on!" -- you have to get all the classic lines in there. We also made a concerted effort to have the characters talk to one another on this table, so you're going to get things like Ben and Johnny harassing each other and Sue's teammates rooting her on as she takes on Doctor Doom. I'd say there's about 50 percent more dialogue than on any of the previous Marvel tables, and you can expect that trend to continue -- maybe even grow -- for all future releases.

Baker: Oh, you bet we did! And he yelled it really well, if I do say so myself.

If you played the first batch of "Marvel Pinball" tables, I think you're going to notice a big step up in terms of voice acting. Through working on "Marvel vs. Capcom 3", we at Marvel developed a strong relationship with Jonathan Klein and his team at New Generation Pictures, who themselves are huge Marvel fans and friends with some of the best VO actors in games and animation -- who, in turn, are voicing the characters in this and all Marvel tables in the foreseeable future.

And yes, recording the VO is all kinds of fun. My schedule didn't allow me to attend the VO session in person, but I listened in via Skype, jumping in on the rare instances where I felt something might be a little off. Jonathan and his team are the pros here and listening to them do their thing is a fascinating process in and of itself.

Was the table design more inspired by the comic book or the films?

Baker: Honestly, I can't think of a single thing on this table that can be defined as "influenced by the movies." It's definitely the first decade or so of comics that most influenced what you'll be playing here.

Were there any ideas for the table that were abandoned due to lack of space, or did you guys get everything in there that you were hoping for?

Baker: I'll admit, I was begging for a 3D Silver Surfer model that didn't get into the game, but technical limitations restricted his appearance to a dot-matrix-based minigame. I loved the way Zen broke this news to me: "Regarding Silver Surfer, we'd love to have him as a 3D model, but our current technical limitations are literally stretched to the limit already by Mister Fantastic and the rest of the characters." For native Hungarians, they sure do know how to make a great pun in English!

Has Stan Lee played any of the Marvel pinball tables at all?  Or at least seen them?

Baker: Not that I know of, but I certainly hope so! Maybe we'll have to arrange that somehow. I'd like to imagine it would be just like the page out of issue #2 of "BLIP," Marvel's 1980s gaming magazine, where he's there with the super heroes themselves, playing alongside a bunch of kids. There's no doubt in my mind the Fantastic Four table would have him shouting "EXCELSIOR!"

With Fantastic Four now available, what's next for you guys?  We've been hearing rumors of tables based on Ghost Rider and Thor.  Can you confirm anything yet?

Kirk: There are definitely more "Marvel Pinball" tables on the way, and you will be hearing about a few of them very soon. I can also promise that we will keep the game fresh and exciting -- who's to say we can't develop a table based on an epic event in the Marvel Universe, like, say, "Infinity Gauntlet?" We have a white board chock full of amazing ideas. The hard part is picking out which to do!

Finally, do you see the partnership continuing on between Zen Studios and Marvel?  It looks like it's been very profitable thus far, not to mention a lot of fun!

Kirk: There is no doubt that the two companies enjoy working together. The guys in the studio are huge Marvel fans, so it's a bit of a dream come true to be working with them on this level. I think it's clear that this has been a true collaboration on every level. Working with guys in the games group at Marvel, such as Chris Baker and TQ Jefferson, have helped to shape this game into the success that it is and we are all enjoying this right now. As we like to say, Zen Studios make the best pinball tables and Marvel has the best Super Heroes, so it's an easy match. Both companies are overly passionate about what they do -- this project really is a reflection of that!

Follow CBR on Twitter for your chance to win a Fantastic Four Marvel Pinball code on Tuesday, after 5PM Pacific!

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